BWW Reviews: ARCADIA - A Well Constructed Play Which Makes for a Long Echoing Sit at MAMAI
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
Czech born Thomas Stoppard is a Jewish British playwright who escaped from his birth country in 1939, just before the Nazi occupation. Living, in England, he has gained a reputation as one of modern English language's greatest playwrights. The recipient of an Academy Award and four Tony Awards, it is generally agreed by theatre analysts that "Arcadia," a production of which is now on stage at Mamai Theatre, is one of the western world's greatest plays.
A staging won the 1995 Tony Award for Best Play and then the 2011 Tony for Best Revival of a Play. It is the only play ever to be nominated by the Royal Institution (of Britain) as "the best science book ever written."
The 1993 written "Arcadia" explores linguistics, philosophy, literature, personality, human rights, censorship, political freedom, science, mathematics, physics, manners, and sexuality. Thrown in along the way are discussions of sexual jealousy, landscape gardening, dueling, chaos theory, and the war between Classical and Romantic aesthetics.
The play's unusual format jumps back and forth between present day and the early nineteenth century. The actions of the earlier era form the subjects and discussions of the present day scenes. As the play progresses, the past blends into the present to the degree that at the end of the play, the two have blended together. In a creative bent, Stoppard has four dancers, two from the present and two from the past, perform to the strains of a single waltz melody as the final lights go out.
Interestingly, all of the scenes in "Arcadia" are played in the same acting space, a large room in Sidley Park, an English country house, with a table as the center of attention. As the play progresses, items from both eras appear on the table. A laptop computer accompanies a space with quill pens and ink wells. An apple which is cut and eaten in 1809, is consumed in the "today" scenes. Homework, notes, letters and books written and read in the nineteenth century, are used in the present.
The activities of two modern sibling scholars, a literature researcher (Chloe Coverly, and a mathematician (Valentine Coverly), juxtapose with the lives of their relatives, who lived in the manor years earlier.
We observe as Thomasina Coverly, the sixteen year old daughter of the manor, studies with her tutor, Septimus Hodge. Her modern day cousin, Valentine, finds her work and is impressed by her creative ideas about mathematics and physics, well beyond her age and the knowledge findings of the day.
A visit by Lord Byron, who does not appear in person in the play, stimulates much of the conversation in both eras. In the present, Hannah Jarvis, a writer, investigates a hermit who once lived on the grounds. (Could it have been Bryon?) Bernard Nightingale, a literature professor, is looking into the secret life of Byron. What really happened? As it turns out, only we, the observers know.
And, as all the modern day investigation takes place, gossip and actual events of the past unravel. Another connecting link is a "living" tortoise who supposedly bridges the parts of the tale. (Unfortunately, Mamai's production uses a plastic tortoise, which leads to confusion and deflects this important reference.)
Stoppard's language choices are intended to reflect the colloquialisms of early 19th century England and modern England. Unfortunately, due to the terrible acoustics in the room, plus some poor vocal projection, and the lack of vocal stressing, this, like the tortoise's purpose, is lost.
The play ends with the blending of the times. This device brings Stoppard's beliefs together that Romanticism and Classicism, intuition and logic, thought and feelings, can exist in the same time and space, and that order can be found amid chaos.
Mamai's "Arcadia," under the direction of Christine McBurney, though well acted and staged, is hampered by Pilgrim Churches presentation space. The intimacy works well, but the high ceiling, hard wall surfaces, niches and crannies that allow sound to roam, creates mind-blurring echoes. This is a play that requires listening fidelity. Every line must be heard to grasp the nuances. (The major topic at intermission was the lack of ability to hear many of the lines.)
Cute and pixy Meghan Grover, developed a Thomasina filled with teenage angst and unbridled enthusiasm. She, like so many of the 1800 character's, however, needed a Romantic era shading to her acting.
Handsome Jason Kaufman created a consistent characterization as Septimus, Thomasina's tutor, but spoke so softly that most of his lines were lost. This is a tricky performance space and Kaufman fell into the trap of not realizing that the intimacy did not translate into conversational projection.
Stuart Hoffman did use the Romantic era acting style of overdone shading, but since he was one of the few who did, his bulging eyes and over pronunciation made him look out of sync with the rest of the older-era cast.
The modern day cast members had an easier time in developing characters as they only needed to be realistic, sticking to modern acting style. Scott Esposito's Bernard was properly fey dusted, and Khaki Hermann, as his sister Chloe, was realistic in her character development. Christopher Bohan was a little over-the-top, feigning characterization instead of realistically developing the insecure, opinionated researcher, Bernard Nightingale. (Is the character a buffoon, a caricature, nothing more than a device for laughter?)
Don McBride's fragmented set and Benjamin Gantose's lighting designs worked well. Jenniver Sparano's costumes were era correct and helped separate the time periods.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: "Arcadia" is one of the English language's great plays. Tom Stoppard's language is poetic and poignant. His use of dichotomies is impressive. This is a play worth seeing and Mamai should be praised for selecting and staging the script. That said, the almost three hour sit became frustrating as many lines could not be heard, echoes exceeded clarity, acting styles weren't always consistent to their era. The theatre desperately needs to find another venue. It's a shame that their quality work and the efforts of the cast are spoiled by the blurring of the dialogue, which is the basis for understanding the playwright's brilliant efforts.
Mamaí's "Arcadia" runs through August 3, 2014 at the Pilgrim Church, 2592 West 14th Street, Cleveland. For tickets go to: http://www.mamaitheatreco.org